"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals," as, well, Agent K puts it in "Men in Black"!
Thomas Hobbes put it a little less pithily but made substantively the same point when he wrote his potboiler on human nature: "Leviathan".
And if you think Seventeenth Century philosophy is an unlikely starting point for an episode of Doctor Who, remember there's a very literal "Leviathan" Moon Dragon here.
|A Leviathan, yesterday|
So I'm going to start at the point where Clara asks the Earth to vote on whether or not to, as the episode title has it, kill the Moon.
To my mind that is where the heart of what this moral dilemma is about stands. It's not just about the rights and wrongs of killing, or of killing a baby, or the one life versus many billions. It's about how we make choices like that.
I'm not dismissing those dilemmas. They are important choices. And the episode is driving you to taking sides on each of them.
And frankly it's almost impossible to overlook the "abortion" metaphor. Although in a way I suspect that writer Peter Harness probably did; it's very much there to be read into the text – it's a choice made by women whether to kill a baby that might threaten their way of life or even survival – but that really doesn't seem to be the point that he's making.
The point that Hobbes and K are making – to go back to that – is that asked to make a decision en masse people default to the self-interested choice. Individual acts of kindness and charity happen, of course they do; but look at the outcomes and you must admit that most people will do the least they have to or ask what's in it for me? It's the thinking behind the "Prisoner's Dilemma". It's why we have sayings like "no good deed goes unpunished". It's why referendums are actually a pretty bad way to make decisions. It's why we have Tory governments for that matter.
What accounts for the difference – individuals kind; groups selfish – is information and accountability.
Random people in a large group are unlikely to have expertise in a specific subject, and almost certainly not the time or inclination to spend resources getting themselves informed. So they will make simplistic decisions based on gut instinct and the limited information they have available which is usually "how will this affect me".
At the same time, no one is going to ask them to justify the choice that they have made. We see this time and again in post-election polling: more people say they voted for the winning side than actually did. Or in some cases more people say they voted for the "good" party than actually did.
We have a couple of ways of dealing with this.
One of them is capitalism. Utopian systems such as Communism require every individual to know and understand their place in relationship to the system so that they will not overuse resources, and will appreciate say what the "needs" of others are in order to fulfil the "to each according to their needs" part. Capitalism gets around that by not requiring people to be angels. "Market forces" just means setting the self-interest of one group to cancel out the self-interest of another group and achieve an overall fairness. (Even then a true market requires "perfect" information – otherwise one side can take advantage of, say, insider trading – and since "perfect" information is impossible we have an unstable system where one side usually has disproportionate power, which is why at the very least we need regulations to rebalance the equation, and in the longer term something else altogether. The strengths and failings of liberal capitalism being really a longer essay for another time.)
But the main one is representative democracy: We chose the kind of people we want to make decisions – conservative or progressive, liberal or authoritarian – and expect them to go and get themselves informed on the subject and then make the decision for us.
Hobbes is not a fan of representative democracy, which he largely sees as swapping a large rabble for a smaller one. He favours a monarch, someone in whom the maximum information can be focussed and who has the maximum accountability (which suggests Hobbes knew very little about actual monarchs).
We see this reflected in "Kill the Moon". (Yes, back to the Doctor Who episode.)
Yes, of course it's unbelievable that every single light on Earth would go out. We like to believe that ordinary people would be better than that. And people make excuses, say it's governments or Mr Burns-esque power company bosses making the decisions. Or protest that only a narrow arc of the Earth actually gets a vote (typically it's Western Europe, continent of privilege that makes it.) That isn't the point. Earth here is Hobbes's Leviathan, the people's choice being nasty brutish and short-sighted. (And yes, Leviathan is where that joke about the Sontarans comes from; you probably know that.)
Clara is the person who has most information – not only because she is on the scene but through her experiences from travelling with the Doctor. And she is also the most accountable person, if only to the Doctor. Or to Courtney, her one witness from "real life". But perhaps even more so to herself, because she’s in a position where she can’t just say ‘well I couldn’t make a difference’.
These factors combine to make Clara the right person to make the right decision. The monarch.
And the monarch having made the right decision, the people flourish (the Doctor's vision of mankind's future unfolding across space and to the ends of time).
If you still think this isn't the point, then Courtney – arguably the person with the second best information – is, the Doctor tells us, implausibly going to become President i.e. secular monarch.
What fascinates me – and for me makes the Doctor a real Liberal hero in this episode – is that he denies Hobbes and choses to absent himself from the role of monarch.
When Clara lashes out at the Doctor at the end, she has every right to be furious. Her best friend has just abandoned her to what seemed to her the most painful choice –
This isn't a difficult choice. Difficult choices – and that's not always a politician's excuse for doing the wrong but expedient thing – are when there are only lose/lose options.
The threat to Earth is largely hypothetical. (We are told about flooding that has happened.) But if the baby turns out to be a threat, there are other things that can be done.
Killing the baby Moon Dragon really is just choosing the easy thing over the right thing.
[This week, this could so easily be a metaphor about refugees.]
Clara knows this. She knows what is right. But everything seemed to be telling her that doing the right thing had too high a cost, possibly the whole of the Earth. And when she needed him to support her, to be there, to hold her hand, the Doctor was gone.
But she's also dead wrong.
He knows that he is absolutely the wrong person to make this choice.
He's made this choice before. At the end of the Time War. First time around he got it wrong (or – retcon – he spent nearly three regenerations thinking he got it wrong). When he ended the Time War, he chose to take away everybody's choices.
And in Doctor Who, from pretty much the beginning on, taking away people's choices, whether by possession, mind control or extermination, has been directly equated with evil.
So if he makes it for us now, he's doing the same thing over again, ending everyone else's choices.
He knows that the right choice here is "don't kill the baby". But if he tells Clara that… if he tells her what to choose… he's "killing the baby", where "the baby" is humanity's nascent moral standing in the Universe.
This is why the Time Lords have a policy of non-interference. This is what the Prime Directive really means. DO NOT BE THE DALEKS.
This episode divides people, not – it seems to me – in the way "The Caretaker" seems to have done, which is on the question of quality, but in whether they side with Clara or the Doctor in response to his actions in leaving her to make the choice, or whether they think Clara was right to "overrule" that vote.
There is also a bit of division between those who get the screaming ab-dabs at the use abuse of science and those who get as far as Moon Dragon and shrug. For all that it is dressed up as a piece of hard sci-fi, it's actually a whopping great metaphor. In some ways it's up to the viewer whether you take that to mean the Moon Dragon is a metaphor for Leviathan, or for the unborn child, or for an Engorgio ad Absurdum of the Brothers Karamazov dictum:
"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature...in order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?"
Cards on the table, I think this is one of the very best episodes of Doctor Who. Ever.
It looks gorgeous, as usual – the use of Lanzarote as a moonscape is inspired, and the effects are outstanding: the CG space shuttle crash, the spider-germs, the Moon Dragon itself. It's proper Hinchcliffe scary with real monsters – probably the series' best spiders yet. There are some lovely references, particularly to "The Ark in Space", from the use of the yoyo for gravity testing and mention of the Bennet oscillator to it being an Earth-space-satellite horror with an inspiring speech about the nobility of human nature! (Even if it shoots the continuity of "The Moonbase" into little pieces.)
And the acting is total quality throughout. Yes even Ellis George's Courtney who is supposed to be that annoying – a very Earthly child. Hermione Norris – "Spooks'" Roz Myers – as bitter, cynical, disappointed, let down by humanity abandoning space travel Lundvik, who still rediscovers wonder at the end. Lovely to see Tony Osoba again too. But especially Jenna Coleman who has transformed as Clara from the previous year's cypher into someone confident, bossy, caring, flawed, terrified, angry and totally human. And of course Peter Capaldi, as the Doctor. Impossible and alien. And liberal and right.
That speech of the Doctor's at the end, played with a sense of wonder as though this is a gift from the Universe to him for trusting Clara to get it right, is one of the great speeches of "Doctor Who", up there with "Indomitable" and "Do I have that right?" both of which are clearly influences on this episode. It was so good that, just weeks later, we had it quoted at our wedding:
"In the mid Twenty-First Century, humankind starts creeping off into the stars, spreads its way through the galaxy to the very edges of the Universe. And it endures ’til the end of time. And it does all that because one day in the year 2044, when it had stopped thinking about going to the stars, something occurred that make it look up, not down. It looked out there into the blackness and it saw something beautiful, something – wonderful, that for once it didn't want to destroy. And in that one moment, the whole course of history was changed."
Look up not down. See the wonder not the blackness. Discover; don't destroy. Make the right choice.
Above all "Kill the Moon" makes you think. It's clever and challenging and if you get into an argument about it, all the better.
This is what Doctor Who is for.
Next Time Throw Momma from the Train! If "Kill the Moon" is flying the flag for Doctor Who's "rad" tradition, next time things get about as "trad" as they can go. Period drama! Oak panelling! Living Mummy! Gothic futurism collides with sci-fi horror monster mash! Look out Janet Henfrey, time for another death-by-undead! There's a "Mummy on the Orient Express"!